Stress causes obesity and diabetes in these 10 ways


Much research over the past two decades shows that stress causes obesity and diabetes in different ways. Studies also show that stress makes it harder to lose weight. This is one of the reasons why some people fail to lose weight, no matter how well they eat or exercise. Stress is one of the biggest yet most overlooked factors driving the diabetes epidemic.

Most people only think of psychological stress when they hear the term “stress”. When asked what causes the stress, they may say things like losing their job, arguing with their spouse, driving in traffic, or being audited by the IRS.

While it’s true that psychological challenges like this are major stressors, many people don’t realize that stress is also caused by physiological challenges, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • chronic infections
  • Inflammation
  • Autoimmune disease
  • environmental toxins
  • Subsistence allowance
  • too much exercise

Even if your psychological stress level is quite low, any of the conditions listed above can trigger a chronic stress response in your body. And as we’ll see in the next section, chronic stress can make you fat and diabetic.

10 Ways Stress Causes Obesity and Diabetes

When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus activates, causing the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally released at a specific rate throughout the day.

It should be high in the morning when you wake up (it’s what helps you get out of bed and start your day) and gradually lower throughout the day (so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep ).

Recent research shows that chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more importantly, it disrupts the natural rhythm of cortisol. And it’s this broken cortisol rhythm that takes such a toll on your body. Among other effects:

  1. Increases blood sugar level
  2. Makes it harder for glucose to enter your cells
  3. Makes you hungry and craving for sugar
  4. Reduces your ability to burn fat
  5. Suppresses your HPA axis, which causes hormonal imbalances
  6. Reduces DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone and TSH levels
  7. Makes your cells less sensitive to insulin
  8. Increase belly fat and oil the liver
  9. Increase the rate at which you store fat
  10. Increases the level of fatty acids and triglycerides in the blood

Each of these consequences could on its own makes you fat and diabeticbut when added together, they are almost a perfect recipe for diabesity.

Our bodies are not made for chronic stress

One of the reasons chronic stress is so destructive is that our bodies didn’t evolve to deal with it. We are prepared to handle short-term acute stress quite well. In Paleolithic times, it could have been caused by being chased by a lion or chasing our next meal. In fact, this type of stress can even benefit our bodies as it improves our ability to respond to life’s challenges.

What we are not adapted to, however, is the chronic, relentless stress that has become so common in modern life. This type of stress causes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, what psychologists call a “defeat response”. And it’s the defeat response that leads to increased fat storage, abdominal obesity, tissue breakdown, immune system suppression, and all the other effects I mentioned earlier that cause obesity and diabetes directly.

A closer look at insomnia, diet and exercise

Let’s take a closer look at three stressors that can often make us fat and diabetic: insomnia, diet and exercise.

Several studies show that lack of sleep increases cortisol and increases the chances of gaining weight and developing diabetes.

Lack of sleep as a cause of obesity and diabetes

A very recent article showed that restricting sleep to 5 hours per night for just one week significantly reduced insulin sensitivity. Another study earlier this year showed that even one night of sleep loss increased appetite in healthy young adults. Sleep restriction is associated with a decrease in carbohydrate tolerance, and research has shown that losing 3 hours of sleep each night leads to 4-5% weight gain.

Diets as a cause of obesity and diabetes

While it may seem counterintuitive that diet contributes to obesity and diabetes, it makes a lot of sense when you understand that diet is a stressor that disrupts our cortisol rhythm.

A 2001 study showed that “cognitive food restriction” (translation: stressing about food or following an overly restrictive diet) increases cortisol levels. Studies have also shown that calorie restriction, as is often the case with low-fat diets, increases cortisol levels. And a recent study found that calorie restriction is especially harmful when combined with sleep deprivation.

Exercise can predispose you to weight gain and diabetes

Finally, although not common in the general population, too much exercise can also predispose you to weight gain and diabetes by increasing cortisol levels, breaking down muscle tissue and increasing fat storage. This is especially true if cortisol levels are already elevated or disrupted by other stressors like gut infections, insomnia, food toxins, or psychological factors.

It’s not uncommon (at least in the paleo/fitness subculture) to find someone who eats well and exercises, but can’t lose weight. In fact, they need to exercise less if they want to lose weight and get healthy. What you may not realize is that cortisol is a catabolic hormone. It breaks down the body.

While this may sound like a good thing for those trying to lose weight, it’s not. Muscle tissue is metabolically active and actually helps us lose weight. A reduction in lean muscle tissue may shed a few pounds in the short term, but it will set you up for future weight gain by affecting your metabolism. (This is another reason why low-calorie diets, which break down muscle tissue, don’t work in the long run and even make things worse.)

So if you’re having trouble controlling your weight or blood sugar, don’t diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise. You will be much better.


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